Every couple of weeks, I hope to be profiling our wounded warriors' caregivers. To kick start it, I am going to tell the story of my family.
Derek was injured on July 23, 2011. He was on patrol when another soldier was injured. His group was called in to secure the landing zone. They found themselves in a literal mine field. With IEDs detonating all around them, they secured the LZ and prepared to leave.
Derek stepped on an IED, but only the blasting cap detonated. He sat up and prepared to complete the mission. Two steps later, he met the second IED, and that changed our lives forever.
I received a phone call at around 9:30 Saturday morning, July 23, 2011. I was preparing for the day ahead - errands, cleaning, laundry - when the phone rang. "I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but your son, Derek, was injured while on patrol this morning." Shaking, I sat on my bed and tried to think about what to do next. I knew I had to tell my sister, my father, my children, and, of course, Krystina, Derek's girlfriend of over four years. After calling my sister, who was on vacation, and running downstairs to tell my father, I thought I could keep my voice calm enough to tell Krystina. Then I woke my other children and told them the news. Kellina and Ryan were 16, Sean was 14, and Michael was 22. Michael returned home after serving four years in the Navy the day before this happened.
The news during that first week was sketchy, at best. Every time I called, I was given another version of injuries. I decided to just wait until I had hands and eyes on. Six days later, we all arrived in Bethesda. On July 27th, Walter Reed Army Medical Center stopped receiving new patients. Derek flew in on July 29th directly to National Naval Medical Center, which became Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in September.
Derek lost his left leg at the hip and his right leg high above the knee. His right arm was broken and blasted which severed nerves, tendons and muscles. He is in limb salvage, and the hand is slowly regaining some use. He sustained fractures of the pelvis, jaw and skull. He has mild TBI. Acuta renal failure, several blast wounds, many infections, and internal injuries completed the profile. He spent two months on a ventilator and four months on oxygen.
I walked away from my life when Derek was injured. In October, I was advised I did not have a job to return to. I sent my children to live with my sister, so they were uprooted from their home, but were able to stay in school since we live four blocks from one another.
Krystina was a college student at County College of Morris and worked for Party City. At first, she took a leave of absence from her job, but when Derek's condition did not improve, she quit. She also withdrew from her Fall classes, and hopes to enroll again when they return to New Jersey. Krystina left her parents and little brother behind, and walked away from everything to be with Derek. They became engaged initially in October when a good Samaritan anonymously sent Derek a diamond engagement ring to present to her.
Derek was an inpatient for 288 days. He was in the ICU for 59 days total. 36 surgeries and 19 procedures helped piece him back together. He was considered "in the woods," and on the verge of sepsis for four months. He went septic, full system shut down, on August 8, 2011, and the doctor sat down, took my hand, and said, "I don't know if I can save him." It was a happy day when Dr. Perdue walked in and told us the woods were in the rear view mirror!
We went through a lot during the 288 days in the hospital. We had a fabulous medical team. Our favorite doctors included Dr. Philip Perdue, Dr. Obi Ugo, Dr. Ben Bograd, Dr. Diego Vicente, Dr. Robert Howard, and Dr. Amy Kim. Derek flirted with his favorite nurses, Katie, Katie, Angela, Angela, Rhianna, and so many others. And of course, we love the facility pups, Sgt Archie, Laura Lee and Bobbie, who supported and encouraged Derek and comforted us throughout his stay.
We had difficult weekends, which caused our Congressman to show up on Monday morning (he had been reading my blog about our hospital adventures). We had wonderful days. We met so many wonderful people and people we hope not to see again. We struggled, and we persevered. Through out it all, Krystina and I were by Derek's side.
Adjusting to the injuries was a roller coaster, but for the most part, Derek thrived. Before his injury, he told his medic that if he even lost a pinkie, he wanted to be allowed to bleed out, because he did not want to live if he was not "whole." However, when he awoke and learned of his injuries, his will to live kicked in, and he simply said, "F*** it." He has had his difficult days when the gravity of his injuries hit him and he mourned for all he lost, but for the most part, his attitude is upbeat and positive.
Learning to walk was a struggle, but with a great physical therapist, Kerri, he is doing it!
We were able to spend holidays with family, including Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. The 10th Mountain Association has holiday dinners at the Omni Shoreham in DC, and it was wonderful!
As for me, prior to the incident, I was practicing law with a firm I loved. I specialized in family law, collections, and small claims. After spending nine months in Bethesda, I returned home to pick up the pieces of my life. I moved my teenagers home, got back into the school swing, and am actively looking for full-time employment that will afford me the flexibility that I need to travel to Bethesda and to be there for my other children. I am writing for this wonderful online magazine and selling Mary Kay, in the meantime. Hopefully, something great will come along soon that will pay the bills.
Krystina is still by Derek's side. The wedding is in a couple of years, when Derek can walk down the aisle. The weekend this happened, I told Krystina that he would dance with me at their wedding.
Krystina is Derek's angel. For five years, since high school, they have been together. They have never wavered in their love and commitment to each other. Krystina stood up to some estranged family members who insisted that it would be best for her if she left Derek. At 20 years old, this young woman has shown such grace and strength. So many wives and girlfriends walk away from the warriors when the gravity of the injuries and the changes in their lives become apparent. Not Krystina. Other wives could take lessons from this remarkable girl.
That is a brief synopsis of the last eleven months. I could say so much more about our experiences, but I will save it for another time.
Stay tuned to hear about other caregivers and their wounded warriors!